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The Importance of Enrichment

In her blog, Cognitive Canine, Stremming categorizes the four steps of behavioral wellness as 1) exercise 2) enrichment 3) diet 4) communication. Obviously, these are ALL key, but, I really think enrichment is one we don’t look at enough. The dog community can really learn a lot from the zoo community here. Every well run zoo puts serious time, research, and creativity put into their enrichment programs. We probably put more into this in zoos because we know the animals aren’t getting biologically fulfilled, but I think we can say the same things about our dogs. After reading Coppinger’s book, What Is A Dog, I realized we have a lot to take from his research. In 1990, Ray Coppinger along with others tried to estimate the number of dogs in the world. Their estimation is about 850 MILLION to a BILLION dogs. He and his teams have studied village dogs for years. Although most of these dogs do not live long lives (canines are the only mammal that does not care for pups after they are weaned and the each niche for dogs is only so big), we can be sure their lives are full of biological fulfillment. Village dogs are constantly scavenging in villages and dump sites. “With over 300 breeds of dogs and 75 million pet dogs in the United States, it is not surprising that some of them leave their families and yards and go native, straying back into the village dog community. Why do they do that? Being in the village dog community with other dogs, whether in town or a dump may simply be a more rewarding life for a dog. Dog owners really have to work to prevent them from straying back into the larger dog population. Being shut in all day and taken for a walk on a leash once or twice and eating the same brown food every day, year in and year out, neutered, and often disgustingly overweight might not be a very comfortable life. Many people think dogs have special cognitive skills that other mammals- even wolves- don’t have. If that were true, life in the house would make them even more bored and worse off in their daily lives” (Coppinger, 187). Of course, these dogs do not stray away consciously and make a decision to leave their homes, they simply may just be looking for more interesting places where they can access more biologically fulfilling things.

If we are trying to enrich our dogs lives as social beings, we really should be taking into consideration what is fulfilling and biologically appropriate for each individual dog and each individual breed. Some dogs find digging rewarding, some find foraging rewarding, some find running rewarding, and every dog finds sniffing rewarding. We can tailor our enrichment for our dogs based on our dogs needs. For example, for a dog that likes to dig, we can teach him/her to dig in a $10 kiddy pool with some sand so they are still getting their natural impulses out but in a way that we humane see as appropriate. We can start with simple, but effective enrichment. One thing I recommend to every single dog owner out there is that they do not feed their dog in a bowl. Think about the average dog (which, statistically, is considered a “stray” or “feral” dog)- they spend their ENTIRE day looking and scavenging for food or finding a mate or sleeping to conserve energy to look for their next meal. Just putting our dogs food down twice a day with zero effort on the dogs part is simply not natural. Something as simple as a slow feeder, a snuffle mat, or putting kibble in muffin tins can be life changing and so fun to watch! I frequently save my amazon boxes, cereal boxes, toilet paper and paper towel rolls to make cheap enrichment. I put a little wet food and some kibble in there and my dogs get to have fun ripping stuff up and working to find their food.

Another form of enrichment I find incredibly effective and calming for a dog is a decompression walk. Basically, we just take the dog out on a harness and a long line (say 30-50 feet) and bring them to open field to let them sniff. Even better if this can be off leash, but I understand that this is not realistic for some people. I like to encourage people to just follow where the dog wants to go and to let the dog really take in the environment. We are often in such a rush to just do our prescribed walk every day that we rush through it and the dog doesn’t even get a chance to take in the surroundings. If you were to watch a dog off leash, they do not just walk in a straight line around the neighborhood, they stop and sniff, they run a few steps, they are always zigzagging and finding new things interesting- so let’s let them be dogs! Walk slow, and enjoy the walk! You may be burning less calories, but I promise you’re dog will be calmer and happy for it. Another added benefit of letting them sniff is that the dogs heartrate lowers when sniffing. It has a calming effect.

I also really like to have clients measure out their dogs food in the morning as they would to put it in their dogs food bowl, but instead, feed the dog during the day when the dog makes decisions we like. This makes it so the dog has some control over it’s life (isn’t that what we all strive for? A little control over our surroundings?) and its rewards. The dog learns very easily this way what we want from them and what we don’t want. Plus, you are constantly using positive reinforcement for great offered behaviors! This is for another blog post probably.

There is a wonderful group on facebook called canine enrichment where there are plenty of more ideas for enrichment but some ideas I love are spraying coyote urine or some sort of interesting smell on a fence post, giving the dog something interesting to smell in their otherwise stale environment. Doing nose work is also a great option. There are a multitude of amazing kong recipes out there, I usually use some pumpkin, some wet food, and lots of kibble to stuff mine and then put them in the freezer and this is how I feed at least one meal a day. In my opinion, especially if you are leaving the dog daily for long periods of time alone (remember, this is not natural for them!), kongs are a great option. I also highly recommend flirt poles and different enriching toys to be added to the mix.

Enrichment is especially important for dogs not used to being restricted in homes. “Some humane programs capture village dogs, neuter them, and send them off to shelters in rich countries to be adopted into family status, where they are made totally dependent and entirely restricted. They get to walk on leash for exercise, and they are walked occasionally to a doggie park. The so- called benefit to the dog (a social animal) is not measured in terms of a better social life for them but, rather, in terms of longer, healthier lives. For many street or village dogs, the problem with being inserted into this new life altering experience is that they lack the ability to adopt to the new environment. Behavioral problems accompany that lack of adaptability. Why? Well, they weren’t socialized from early puppyhood to that restricted new environment. By the time they get to and through the shelter and into a home as a companion animal, their critical period for social development is long past. It is common for working dogs- military dogs- customs dogs, police dogs, to be retired and confined to a domicile- where they sometimes can display abnormal and unacceptable behaviors. A major problem known as separation anxiety appears in many of them” (Coppinger, 227). If we think about it from a dog’s point of a view, can we really blame them for not understanding how in a world that simply isn’t natural for them? Enrichment is a requirement for mental and physical health! If we give dogs permissible outlets for their behaviors, dogs can succeed with us and we can increase the quality of their lives and ours.

Coppinger, Ray. What is a Dog? (2016)


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